One of the most architecturally stunning subway stations in New York City is most likely a place you’ve never stepped foot in.
While Old City Hall station has been shuttered for more than 70 years, the allure of the abandoned site remains. Several times a year, transit enthusiasts can walk the curved platform, appreciate the elegant chandeliers and vaulted tile ceilings, and learn the secrets of the station’s past.
While you wait for the next available New York Transit Museum tour, you can learn more about the station known as the “jewel in the crown” below.
Old City Hall station opens
On Oct. 27, 1904, the first subway train left the City Hall station for its inaugural ride to 145th Street with Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. at the controls. According to New York Transit Museum's Old City Hall tour guide Polly Desjarlais, McClellan drove the train all the way to 103rd Street, despite that he was supposed to hand over control to the engineer sooner. "I think he was probably enjoying himself too much," she said. (Credit: Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum)
From the IRT to the 4-5-6
When the city's subway system first rolled into service, there was only one train line, known as the Interborough Rapid Transit, or IRT. As the intricate web of the transit system was woven, it became known as the IRT Lexington Avenue line, and, currently, the line services the 4-5-6 trains as well as the 42nd Street shuttle and the 1 train, Desjarlais said. (Credit: Patrick Cashin / MTA New York City Transit)
Old City Hall’s breathtaking architecture
Compared to the sleek and streamlined visions of today's subway stations, Old City Hall harkens back to a time when an elegant architectural style was as important as functionality.
Designed by celebrated architects George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge -- the masterminds behind the Byzantine-Romanesque-style Cathedral of St. John the Divine -- the station boasts vaulted tile ceilings created by Spanish-born artisan Rafael Guastavino, leaded skylights and chandeliers that give the now abandoned space a hauntingly beautiful feel.
"I believe William Barclay Parsons, the chief engineer of the Rapid Transit Commission, was responsible for bringing in Heins and LaFarge," Desjarlais said. "They had worked with Guastavino at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights and also with a Danish-American sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who sculpted the plaques made to commemorate the new subway."(Credit: Patrick Cashin / MTA New York City Transit)
One of the not-so-secret facts about the Old City Hall station is the curve of its single platform, which runs about 400 feet in length.
"I believe it is curved because it was constructed between two huge buildings -- City Hall and the old post office that used to sit at the end of City Hall Park -- and [the platform] had to avoid their foundations," Desjarlais explained.(Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)
A grand old station closes
By the 1940s, just a few decades after its grand opening, ridership at the Old City Hall station was very low.
"Because the station is so close to the Brooklyn Bridge station it never had very high ridership," especially since it only had a single, local platform, Desjarlais said. "At Brooklyn Bridge you could also get an express train."
This, coupled with myriad infrastructure issues as the station aged -- including an out-of-date ticketing system and the curved platform's incompatibility with newer trains -- ultimately contributed to the station's closure on Dec. 31, 1945. (Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)
The City Hall loop
Although the Old City Hall station is closed, the track that runs through it is still used by the MTA today. Known as the City Hall loop, the agency uses the track to turn around southbound 6 trains terminating at the Brooklyn Bridge station so the train can head back uptown.
You might be able to catch a glimpse of the abandoned station if a conductor lets you stay on the downtown 6 train as it makes the trip through the City Hall loop on its way back to the uptown platform.(Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)
Old City Hall station tours
If riding the City Hall loop isn't enough to satiate your curiosity (we wouldn't blame you there), the New York Transit Museum offers guided tours of the station. In order to purchase tickets for the tour, you must be a member at the museum. Tickets are released three times a year, usually in April, August and December. For more information, head to nytransitmuseum.org/oldcityhall. (Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)